It's better to burn out than it is to rust ~ Neil Young

The “Great” Debate

After all the reading, thinking and evaluating of my own situation and pedagogical leanings regarding the Clark/Kozma debate, what I find really concerning is that I don’t truly understand where the “debate” lies. Clark’s argument that the attribute of a medium that makes it useful in learning is the instructional method embedded within medium, is, in my mind, not at odds with Kozma’s desire to see research connecting how media interacts and affects those cognitive processes involved in learning. Can’t we have it all? Isn’t it possible to research a medium’s effect on learning in a scientifically-sound way, while acknowledging that what makes that medium successful is an instructional method that may be delivered in another way? Showing the effectiveness of computer-based games in improving student typing abilities doesn’t negate the fact that an antiquated type-writer and stack of paper may accomplish the same goal using the same instructional method.  And in fact, wouldn’t that comparison lay to rest whether a computer-based approach was a superior medium?

In referencing past research by Kulik, Clark states “the methods used in CBI (computer-based instruction) can be and are used by teachers in live instruction.” This struck a personal chord as I have lived this statement. The teaching of electron-pair position around atoms in a compound is a common outcome in high school chemistry. At the beginning of my career I taught this outcome with balloons and tape/string – low economic impact, high time impact – to help students conceptualize the forces interacting to create molecular shapes. As videos, simulations and graphics became available I replaced this hands-on tutorial with media on students’ phones and computers – low economic impact AND low time impact. I noticed no appreciable change in students’ ability to understand, internalize, and utilize this concept as a result of the transition, and it was significantly less preparation!

For a newer example, consider the personalized questioning and immediate feedback in a math program like IXL. While a teacher could implement the research-supported techniques of personalization and constructive feedback to improve student learning and engagement, it would be near impossible to accomplish this at the speed at which IXL makes possible for an entire class of students.

I will acknowledge that I am leaning towards Clark’s side regarding the separation of media and method. In my experience, teachers (myself included) are quick to adopt or shun a new medium or technology based on performance on student learning (and often convenience), most often without taking the time to reflect on the instructional methods that have led to said success or failure in performance. And it is this point that Clark attacks and where Kozma suffers – I laughed out-loud reading Kozma’s description of The Jasper Woodbury Series research. Having read Clark first, I came into Kozma’s article with only superficial understanding of this study and Clark’s claim the research “did not control” for his argument. The control group of students were still exposed to the video in question but were denied both in-context guidance and practice problems – what was the point then in the showing them the video? Giving one group a story-based problem and providing relevant, in-context questions and guidance, compared to a group using the same instructional methods with video-based problems would be much stronger in delineating the effect of this medium – video. I completely understand why Clark called out this study – the control group was not adequate for it to be considered as evidence that the medium was the positive factor in student learning over the instructional method.

I was particularly bothered by this next statement by Kozma, which followed his acknowledgement that multiple factors contribute to learning: “But the fact that other factors contribute to learning does not preempt a role for media.” Well this may be true, wouldn’t Kozma find reason in conducting a specific experimental study in which the medium variable is isolated in order to prove his point and put this debate to rest?

Portions of this debate recall the parable of the blind men and the elephant – the different attributes that media bring can round out the learning of a concept into a more holistic perspective. While I believe Clark to be correct in summarizing that instructional strategies play the central role over the medium itself, it may still be best practice to give students multiple medium with which to interact with a concept. One medium may not be enough to create a useful generalization or abstraction of a concept, or perhaps it may just be a matter of efficiency and convenience; to attempt to develop the various attributes through instructional strategies using only one medium may be more time consuming than utilizing diverse media to the same effect. Further, we may also be doing our students a disservice by not exposing them to current technology and media which will certainly play a role in their future employment – I believe we owe students, to some extent, to stay current.” 

Lastly, it could also be argued that Clark’s continual appeal for the most economical approach to achieving learning goals is his most relevant point. As Katrin Becker reminds us in her review of this debate, “there remains no conclusive evidence that any one medium is more effective than any other.” With tightening budgets (due to governmental constraints or inflation), increasingly diverse student needs, and more and more new tech and media being developed and promoted to educators as the next panacea, intense scrutiny of each new trend has never been more important.

To further this point – which in my opinion is the only real reason to care about this debate – Becker again acknowledges that “it is possible to make do with nothing but lectures and textbooks,” but that today’s media “offer a mechanism for ‘learning by doing’ that in many cases would be too expensive or dangerous to do in real life.”  Essentially, she has defended Clark’s position that method and media are separate (whether intentionally or not) and reinforces that technological advances make current media indispensable from the perspective of economy of scale and convenience only.


“Fight Punch” by Paul Layzell found on Giphy


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